Safe Spaces

                            space-stars-156594ROCKE35660_5b_slide1

Space Series

As the mysterious “they” have said, all good things must come to an end. And that’s true of this series. I’ve been more than thrilled with the posts, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.)

Last but not least is this post by another friend from VCFA, the wise and wonderful Laurie Morrison. If you know Laurie, you know her awesome blog. I’ve been thrilled by her visits to this blog as well. You can find them here and here. Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe and is working on a humorous contemporary young adult epistolary novel the working title of which is Dear Baby. Doesn’t that sound great?! Until that book debuts, you can enjoy this post from Laurie!

SafeSpaceStickerFromGLSEN

I have a sign on my classroom door that is decorated with a rainbow and says Safe Space. The sign means that I want my classroom to be a comfortable, welcoming place for all students.

When I began to reflect on the idea of space for this guest post, I thought of that sign. Then I started to think about the spaces that felt safe and not-so-safe to me when I was my students’ age—in middle school—and then when I was a freshman in high school.

When I was in middle school, almost every place felt safe. I went to the same small, cozy school from kindergarten to eighth grade. My mom was a teacher there, my younger brothers went there, and I’d known most of my classmates for as long as I could remember. But when I started high school, I struggled to find spaces where I felt at home.

Nothing particularly traumatic happened to me. My freshman year would have made for very dull fiction. Nobody was overtly mean to me, and I later found out that one of the girls on my bus, who eventually became one of my best friends, was bending over backwards to try to befriend me, but I was so overwhelmed and out of sorts that I just didn’t notice. After feeling so at home in middle school, though, I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at my bigger, louder, more competitive high school. Especially during some of my lunch periods, when I didn’t have anyone to eat with, and during a free block at the end of the day, when I didn’t know where to go.

i-love-french-class-131870186934Looking back, I realize that even though I felt out of place and disconnected, I found a couple of safe spaces during my freshman fall. One of those safe spaces was French class. A couple of my middle school classmates were in my French class, so I always had someone to sit with. Plus, the whole class routine was so much like it had been in middle school. We’d start each class by going over the workbook pages we’d done for homework; we’d listen to recordings and copy down what we heard; and we’d learn the vocabulary for an activity, like ordering food at a restaurant, and then have practice conversations together. My new teacher’s handwriting even looked the same as my middle school teacher’s handwriting, and she was always complimenting my accent or my memory. I loved going to French class.

princeton_university_house_flag_25798smaIn the book I’m working on now, the main character, Whitney, has just switched schools because her parents can no longer afford her private school tuition now that her brother has started college at Princeton and her mom is pregnant with a miracle baby. As I’m writing Whitney’s story, I’m drawing upon my own feelings of discomfort and alienation from freshman year in high school and magnifying them, because I’ve given Whitney a lot of obstacles to work against.

But in the past few days, as I’ve thought about the safe spaces that I found at the beginning of my freshman year, I’ve decided that Whitney should probably find her own safe spaces, too. I had already given her a couple without realizing it, actually, but until now I hadn’t stopped to think much about what her safe spaces look and feel like, and how she changes when she enters them. By thinking about the places where Whitney feels comfortable, I think I can enrich the setting of the book and make her a more endearing character.

17332968I read A.S. King’s new book Reality Boy last week and I noticed that her main character, Gerald, has safe spaces, too, even though he’s dealing with some pretty rough circumstances. He feels comfortable and welcome in his Special Ed classroom, and he creates his own imagined safe space—a place he calls “Gersday”—where he can go when he needs to escape. These safe spaces don’t detract from the story’s tension, but they help to develop Gerald’s character, and they give the reader some relief; I actually felt myself exhale when Gerald first walked into the “SPED” room, where people appreciate him.

I think safe spaces are important for everybody, real or fictional. So I invite you to consider: what safe spaces do you have now, and what safe spaces did you have when you were younger? What are the safe spaces for the characters you write or read about? What do those safe spaces reveal to you?

Space sign from GLSEN.org. Book cover from Goodreads. French class sign from ilovegenerator.com. Princeton flag from sportsflagsandpennants.com.

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34 thoughts on “Safe Spaces

  1. Interesting–this idea of safe spaces, Laurie. I love how you recognized its importance in every area of your life–as a teacher, as a student, as a writer, and even as a reader. As an adult, I still need safe space. My favorites: my writing office and bed. But also as a reader, I need safe space. If the character I’m living with is under constant stress without access to a safe space, likely as not I’ll skip to the end, read how it all comes out, and put the book down. A full-on world without any safety just isn’t for me.

    • I also love the safe space concept. With that in mind, I need to add some safe spaces to my novel. My characters are under total stress. They need to retreat to places of safety.

    • I totally agree, Sandra! If a book doesn’t include any moments of safety and relief, the reading experience is just too unbearable for me…and the moments of crisis and tension start to lose some of their power!

  2. When I was a kid, my safe spaces in hindsight were not very safe at all.
    I started off shy-painfully shy, but I did have friends. Every now and then, though, I felt the need to go off on my own. I would walk to the woods, I loved the quietness and the, well, greenery. When I stayed at my grandparents house at weekends I would walk for miles down a disused railway line. I wouldn’t see anybody, just birds and the odd cat or fox.
    I was shy and imaginative, and I really felt at ease in those places.
    Looking back, they were not safe at all, in the physical sense, in regard to a child alone (my parents would have gone nuts!) and I would not want my kids walking off unsupervised. Perhaps this is due to an adult’s understanding of what the world is like.
    Innocence lost.
    Interestingly that has stayed with me. I can only go so long until I feel the need to get out somewhere-a shoreline, or a wood, along a river. It is something I try to encourage in my children-as long as they are supervised!!

    • My nephew is like that. He likes to go off on his scooter alone. Crowds weary him.
      I can imagine how wandering through the woods helped shape your imagination. I grew up in a city, so there were no woods to explore. We’d go off on our bikes for hours though–something parents wouldn’t allow today.

    • This is really interesting, Andy. It’s true that a place that feels safe to a child or a character might not seem safe to an adult. Sometimes we might need to make a distinction between what *feels* safe and what really *is* safe…or what’s safe emotionally vs. safe physically. Your comment also emphasizes the idea that we can tell a lot about a person by knowing where that character feels safe. Even if you hadn’t told us that you were shy and imaginative, we might have inferred just from reading about the places where you liked to retreat.

      • And I always feel an affinity with people who did the same kind of things. Without knowing at the time, (it only comes to light a way into the friendship) I seem to gravitate to people who as children felt the need to ‘wander’. Perhaps our imaginative traits play on our surface for the empathic to see.

    • Interesting point. I’m of the Tom Bombadil School of Thought, however. What do I mean by that? I think of the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where the frightened hobbits gain refuge in the home of Tom Bombadil. They finally feel safe. I love that place of refuge.

    • Good question. Maybe different readers have different preferences? I’ve noticed that I will tune out, put a book down, or stop feeling invested in the characters if there aren’t any moments of calm and relative safety. In some action-packed books, those moments of calm are precarious, and the threat of danger remains even if the characters get to relax for a bit. So maybe “safe” isn’t quite the right word to use for certain kinds of books. L. Marie is right, too, that it’s all the more satisfying to have characters reach a refuge if they’ve been through a whole lot of obstacles and felt unsafe for a long time.

  3. I love your insights on safe spaces and their importance for young people. In the YA I recently finished, my protagonist finds a safe space in his neighborhood, among his oldest friends, but they’re the kind of people a lot of the other adults and kids at his school look down on. This creates a lot of tension for him, as he must decide whether or not to venture out into places that are not safe in order to achieve what he wants. It also raises the question of whether what he wants is only for himself or also for the people who have made him feel safe even though they too are in precarious circumstances.

    I think this points to the fact that safe spaces don’t just happen. People have to create them, and sometimes creating them involves great risk.

    • Great point, Lyn, about how people need to *create* safe spaces, and I love the tension in the ideas that creating a safe space could be risky, and a space that feels safe to one person might seem dangerous to another. I look forward to reading your new YA book!

    • Great point, Lyn. That’s something I need to explore in my novel. I love what you said, “People have to create them, and sometimes creating them involves great risk.” I think of relationships in that respect. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  4. This is an interesting concept and I think a wonderful observation. I’ve with struggling with my wip for a long time and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it, when another writer suggested I introduce a mentor and everything clicked together–a mentor and her house is exactly the safe space my character needed. I also think safe spaces give the character time to reflect on what is happening, and that’s when growth occurs. Even high energy books can have safe spaces. I’m thinking of the cave in The Hunger Games where Katniss and Peeta hide while he’s gravely injured. Collins pulls way back on the action there and both the reader and the characters get a much-needed break that also develops the emotional connection between the two. Interesting thoughts!

    • Hi Shelby! I was thinking of those moments in the cave in THE HUNGER GAMES, too, when I responded to Professor VJ Duke’s interesting question above. So glad to hear that developing a safe space for your character has helped things click into place in your WIP!

    • I love that point of the book too. And I have a moment in my WIP where my characters on the run are hiding to regroup. I totally get the need to have these moments.

      Glad the mentor character helped add dimension and focus to your WIP.

  5. Pingback: Safe Spaces | Laurie Morrison

  6. Laurie, thank you for a thoughtful post on the interpretation of space. It raised memories for me, which means that it’s a rich area to explore for my fiction. I like what Andy said above about what a kid imagines is safe versus what is actually safe and that can increase tension in a story, too. I agree with you that every character, even those who must face huge obstacles, also need at least one place to feel safe. I’m thinking of the art room for Melinda in Speak. Thanks for a great post.

    And thanks, Linda, for a fantastic, thought-provoking series!

  7. L. Marie, your reminder of “safe spaces” is an important and timely reminder for writers, for parents, for children…for everyone everywhere. This is a n excellent post. It’s comforting food for hungry, nervous stomachs.

    • Good reminder, Marylin. And you’re so right. Safe places quiet the nerves. 🙂
      Children especially need them. Many have lives programmed to the hilt. And with some schools becoming battlefields where bullies roam, home needs to at least be a safe place to which they can retreat and regroup.

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